A crash course in curling, heavy on the crash

The 2012 USA Curling national championships are being held just outside Philadelphia this week. I’ve been interested in learning how to play ever since curling made its debut as an Olympic sport in 1998, so I visited the Philadelphia Curling Club in Paoli on Monday to get a crash course in the sport.

(Video of my little adventure is embedded at the bottom of this post.)

Isn’t it just like a giant version of shuffleboard on ice? How hard could it really be?

Pretty hard, it turns out.

When you see the game played by world class curlers at the Olympics or national championships, it looks so easy. One person slides a rock down the ice toward a 12-foot bull’s-eye while two teammates sweep the ice in front of the rock to get it to go exactly where the team’s skip wants it to go.

Like most sports, the experts who’ve been practicing their whole lives make it appear so effortless. In fact, dozens of calculations go into each particular shot, and the delivery of the rock is an act that requires total body coordination, precise movements and lots of lower-body strength.

In two hours’ time, I was unable to master the most fundamental part of the sport: the delivery. The curler pushes off of the "hack" like a sprinter pushing off starting blocks, and then slides 33 feet down the ice before releasing the rock. A professional can push out of the hack and stop the 43-pound rock on a dime 150 feet away at the other end of the ice.

I couldn’t do it at all. My instructor made me feel a little bit better by likening the delivery to a golf swing: it’s something that one can’t master immediately, and even the best players in the world are always trying to refine the motion. I was encouraged until I remembered how long I’ve been golfing and how awful my swing is.  

After just a few tries out of the hack, my quadriceps were already burning; it’s not a motion that mimics something we do in everyday life. I had the power to deliver the rock down the ice, but didn’t have the finesse needed to actually get it there. After another hour of largely unsuccessful attempts, I was exhausted.

But I hadn’t even learned about sweeping yet.

In order to help the rock travel farther, curlers use specially designed brooms to smooth the ice surface directly in front of the rock. Good sweeping can make up for a bad throw.

With my legs worn-out and rubbery, I was given a broom and taught how to sweep. The sweepers run down the ice alongside the rock with the head of their broom placed on the ice mere inches in front of the rock. A tremendous downward force must be applied to the broom while it is simultaneously pushed back and forth at a speed nearly impossible for a rookie like me to replicate.

During my first attempt at sweeping, my tired legs couldn’t keep pace with the rock. On my second, I couldn’t sweep fast enough to make a difference. And then on my third, and what would turn out to be my final attempt, I forgot that I was literally running on ice. My feet went out from under me and I crashed to the ice. Two days later, the grapefruit-size bruise on my knee is finally starting to fade.

Despite being an abject failure my first time out, I had an absolute blast learning to play. Like any good sport, curling is easy to learn but difficult to master. Not only is it fun, but it’s also a surprisingly complex workout, combining upper- and lower-body strength with intense cardiovascular exercise. Despite being 40 degrees on the ice, I found myself working up a pretty good sweat.

In the club’s "warm room," a fully stocked bar attests to the fact that curling is very much a social game. The Philadelphia Curling Club has leagues for curlers of all ages and skill levels. Like bowlers, the members of the club gather throughout the week to play league games and friendly exhibitions, or just to sit around and hang out.

During the fall, the club offers lessons. Curlers, by and large, are a welcoming group who are happy to share the sport with outsiders who, like myself, may have only seen it on television.

Although curling is nicknamed "chess on ice" for the strategy involved, the bruises on my body and my aching back and legs reminded me more of my days playing football. At the end of the day, I’d learned that any allusion to shuffleboard couldn't be further from the truth. Curling isn't a game that you can pick up and play to pass time while visiting a retirement home or taking a cruise. It's a serious sport played by dedicated athletes.

And it's a ton of fun.